The Beauty of Intimacy
By Charles Rush
September 26, 2010
I Cor. 13: 4-7, 13-14a
(mp3, 7.3Mb) ]
friend of mine was recently in Copenhagen for several months. The first day he arrived, he took his boys down to the beach so his wife could unpack a few things in peace. He is standing around the playground equipment chatting with some of the other Mothers watching their kids. A few yards away from the playground equipment is an area for sunbathing. After a while, several of these young Mothers drift over to the sunbathing area, strip naked and stretch out on the ground. “Hello, and welcome to Denmark”. He sent me an email that his boys will be getting a lot of exercise in Denmark. Within a week, his boys, aged 9 and 7, are sidling up to him, “Dad, let’s go down to the beach and look at some butts.”
The Danes have
a reputation for being comfortable with their nudity. It is not uncommon to see
women topless in the parks or wearing see through blouses in the Mall.
He dropped me
an e-mail about Danish television because they have porno on regular TV, so his kids would be
flipping to find Barney and what…
great for most of us. I never asked him, but truth be told, at the end of his
first week in Copenhagen, he probably thought he had died and gone to heaven.
But after several months, the euphoria waned. In an e-mail to friends, he said
of the routine exposure to porno, “The Danes have done what I did not think
possible. They have succeeded in making sex boring.” I read that line and
thought to myself, “welcome to the future.”
ago, there was an important documentary done on the Sex industry by the union
of prostitutes in Canada, called “Not a Love Story”. One of the people that
they interviewed made what I thought was an arresting observation around 1980.
She said, “what our society desperately needs is a
shot of eroticism. What we got instead was pornography.” What is the difference
between the two? It is the difference between the sensual and the sexual.
Sensuality celebrates sexual expression as part of our spiritual selves, pornography is simply about technique and control.
We live in an
increasingly sexualized culture and we are just going to have to deal with it. I
first glimpsed the future watching The Soprano’s, the show that
celebrates the rich cultural heritage that is Northern New Jersey. Tony Soprano
and the boys regularly hold meetings at the Baddabing,
a strip joint on Rte. 17, I believe in Paramus. It adds nothing to the show but
a little bare bosom in the background. The first time I saw the show I thought, that gratuitous sex, of course, will start
first on HBO and eventually becomes main streamed.
Or flip over to
the other leading cultural indicator for the future, Championship Wrestling. About
ten years ago Vince McMahon hired some famous porno stars and a bevy of
strippers to parade provocatively in between bouts. Now they play parts as the wrestlers
girlfriends, so we have two guys fighting over one girl, who just happens to be
a stripper. You have to admit, the guy is a genius. Strippers,
porno queens, and wrestlers- a true trifecta. By
the way, the most consistent ‘sold-out’ ticket in the history of ‘sporting
events’ (loosely defined) at Madison Square sports, is Championship wrestling… and strippers with
their clothes on for now… Porno is steadily main-streaming around the world.
We will raise
our children and our grandchildren in a wide-open sexual environment. The
present generation has different challenges before it than we had in the past.
The rite of passage into teenage sexuality, I would have to suspect, is largely
via pornography on the internet. Porno remains, by far, the largest industry on
the internet and it is basically accessible to anyone anytime.
providers first came out, they had child protection software and that might
work until they are teenagers. After that, there are too many computers, too
many ways to access things. I doubt seriously that the answer will come in
better software protection. Our kids will stay one step ahead of us on software
that evades protection filters.
The fact of the
matter, is that a large group of young teens of this generation will first been
introduced to sexuality via the voyeuristic privacy of their own screen, exposed to a variety of
positions and fetishes way beyond the parameters of their emotional imagination
in a masturbatory environment. As yet, it is far from clear what this will mean
for them. It almost makes you long for the safe old days of the tame Playboy
magazine and the girl next door.
It is not the
sex as such, but most people who think about these matters are concerned that
these next couple generations of kids face a bigger challenge to connect their
hips with their hearts. It is a huge and important spiritual challenge in any
will have a twin challenge on our hands: 1) the over-sexualization of our
culture in general and 2) the main-streaming of pornography which is
essentially voyeuristic and masturbatory. It is not an ideal environment to
nurture healthy sexual selves that are integrated spiritually and grounded in a
monogamous relationship of love.
I do not
believe that there is a qualitative leap between the generations. I suspect
that we are likely to see a subtle but important trend towards
compartmentalization. More often, I would suspect that we are likely to hear
from the next generation, “Sex is just sex.” It is related to our love
relationships but it is only one part of them, so a lot of different things
might work for different couples… Whatever.
I don’t want to
talk about sex as such but about one insight from the bible that is relatively
profound, one that will become more important as we negotiate our way through
an over-sexualized world. The Bible suggests, and it is subtle, that the
spiritual key to an integrated sexual life is intimacy.
In the second
and third chapters of Genesis describe the meaning of our sexual selves in the
great saga of Adam and Eve. The scripture has Adam say of Eve “at last bone of
my bone and flesh of my flesh” and the author goes on to explicate that our
original union is also the purpose of marriage. “So a man leaves his mother and
father and joins with his wife, that they might become one.” A deep and powerful union of souls.
the beginning of Chapter four, the scripture says “Now Adam knew his wife and
she conceived and bore Cain.” At first glance, we would be tempted to say that
this is simply modest. The biblical authors are too shy to talk about sex, so
they describe it in euphemism, like Adam and Eve were just talking- “they knew
one another”-when along came Cain. It reminds you of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez sleeping in separate
beds with full night clothes and robes. It is rather quaint.
But the Rabbis
say that this term, “he knew her” is not simply a euphemism. It is also a recognition of the deep intimate knowledge that ought to
accompany sexuality.[i] It
points the way towards the meaning of love. Part of love’s sexual expression is
losing yourself with your spouse. The theologian Paul Tillich noted that the
root meaning of ‘ecstasy’ is literally ec- (out of)
stasis- (to stand). It is a standing outside of oneself. Sexual union is
transcendent and so it is fundamentally a spiritual experience. I am
sorry to say that the Church and the Synagogue, for that matter, have done a
poor job of communicating this over the years.
silence on the whole matter of our sexuality has left most people to conclude
that sex is in some kind of juxtaposition with our spirituality, probably just
something to be corralled, possibly something to be ashamed about. Certainly
that is the world I grew up in the religious world of the South. Many Catholics
have told me stories that echo the same milieu. We have religion up here and
sex down there. We have our Saturday night self and our Sunday morning self and
nary the twain shall meet. The Church, it seems to me, has started us down the
path of compartmentalization already and now internet porno is simply going to
further down the path.
intimacy such a challenge, inside or outside marriage, whether you are 19 or
81, is that real intimacy is necessarily a celebration of vulnerability.
As one Rabbi has said, intimate sensuality “touches the softest spot in each
person, the most private and fragile part of a human being. Therefore, we must
cultivate a healthy environment for our intimacy, one that allows us to
appreciate and revel in this vulnerability, secure and protected… Most of us
desire true intimacy, but we are afraid to experience true vulnerability, to
lose control. But this makes it difficult to ever experience true intimacy, for
being comfortable with your vulnerability is the ultimate intimacy. The illusion
of intimacy-where each person is getting what he or she needs- only makes
people feel good at the moment, if at all. If they are still in control at the
end, if they have not exposed their vulnerability then their ‘intimacy’ was
just another form of exercising control over another person.”[ii]
and Masters, later Masters and Johnson, did their first exhaustive study of sex
in America, you may recall that they interviewed all manner of people for their
study: they had the swinging singles, old married couples, spouse swapping
couples, divorcees, couples living together, on and on. When it came to the
simple question of sexual fulfillment, they discovered- alas- that married,
monogamous couples that had been together for a fairly long time were, on the
whole, the most fulfilled group that they interviewed. I know, today over
lunch, many of you will be saying to your spouse, “Look dear, it could be a lot
worse…. I’m telling you what.”
Of course, it
is not about marriage as such, or monogamy as such or
longevity as such. When they refined their research somewhat, they would
discover that the key to sexual fulfillment lies in your ability to be
intimate- to give and receive love in vulnerability. Monogamy and
longevity are the conditions for safety, where people are more likely be open
I saw another
poll in the paper recently that said that couples who attend Church twice a
month or more are more likely to be sexually fulfilled than those who don’t. It
may be the coffee, I don’t know. I asked our denominational leaders if there
was any way we could work this into a Marketing strategy…
Again, I don’t
think the correlation is direct. It is just that, on the whole, Church people
are trying to open themselves to becoming more loving. They are trying to be
more giving, understanding, to listen and bless those around them. Those are
the spiritual qualities that open the door for the possibility of true
intimacy. Together, they form the spiritual matrix that grants us a safe space,
a secure space. It is out of such a safe space that we then have the freedom to
let ourselves shine from within. We make a soul connection. Great sensuality
follows from soul connection.
sensuality, of course, is bigger than sexuality itself. It is very nearly
synonymous with people that are able to make a spiritual soul connection. It is
the same spirit of character that makes for profound friendship and sharing. It
radiates passion for others, passion for life, passion
for God. Occasionally we will meet people that simply possess a passionate
aura, a charisma. It has an infectious, magnetic draw. It is inspiring.
transcends age and physical beauty, and eventually it even trumps them.
Lillie Shockney got breast cancer at the age of 38
and had a breast removed, then the other breast had to be removed at 39.[iii]
One of the parts of herself she felt most confident about was suddenly gone.
She looked down and could see her toes for the first time since she was a
body image was important and she was nervous about how it would affect her
husband. And it was awkward in the beginning, no question about it. Like most
of us, suddenly she just didn’t feel confident being unclothed, even though
they’d been married fifteen years.
couple simply had to change up their game plan around their love life together-
and not just a little change- and like probably most couples they didn’t really
talk about their love life, they just lived it. But, they couldn’t really just
go on as usual in their case.
Comes the day
when she learns that she can’t have reconstructive surgery and they are laying in bed and she has a lot of anxiety around this and
it sort of spills out in the dark. She is upset and crying about it. Her
husband is silent for a while.
He says, “I
don’t need breasts.” Long silence. “Every time I see
those scars, I remember again that I might have lost you. I don’t need breasts.
I don’t care how many arms or legs you have either.” That is love talking. What
a great thing to say, and what an even greater thing to feel in that moment.
Past that first
level of primal attraction, it is not enough just to be sexy. To sustain and fulfill a relationship, you have to
love and allow yourself to be loved. It is about paying attention and
caring for each other. Sensual love eventually trumps sexy for all of us…
And you know
what happened to this couple? They eventually were able to communicate with
each other about some things they’d never actually talked about, what they
liked and what they didn’t like in romance.
You know what
they each said to one another after they’d heard each other the first time?
“Really, I didn’t know that”. Way led to way and they opened up more and more
with each other.
So now, Ms. Shockney says, as odd as this sounds,
she says that their love life has never been better than after she had a
mastectomy. What has changed is that this terrible disease gave them an opening
to become… more
intimate, to share, to love each other differently and better. It is about the
love. It is about becoming open and vulnerable. It is about sharing.
essentially a spiritual quality. It has to do with our soul. And our soul
never ages, it only grows. Our bodies age, so it
gets harder and harder to stay really sexy. Younger people have better physical
tools. But we can experience more and more profound intimacy, more
profound passion, as we age. This is the true beauty is what shines from within
Because the spiritual quest is actually for intimacy, that is why
we cannot be casual with our sexual expression. Intimacy is necessarily
reserved and limited. It has to be nurtured in safety. It is delicate. We have
to have boundaries. We have to say “No” to casual sex, not because we are
prudish or legalistic but to protect this intimacy, to nurture this intimacy.
Again, I am
afraid that we have done a poor job of communicating this to our young people
in the Church. Too often, we have just told them that sex is wrong, or nowadays
we just try to scare them with all of the sexually transmitted diseases that
are out there. This tactic doesn’t work, despite having been tried forever, and
it is beside the point.
We have done
poor job of telling them what we hope for them in intimacy, passion, and
sensuality. We haven’t been clear enough about how important it is to find a
partner that you have a soul connection with, that you can share with,
that you can be vulnerable with in safety.
intimacy is not mere familiarity. It is possible-some people say it is likely-that
over time, you can become less intimate despite being married for quite a long
time. You take each other for granted,
you stop being interested, you aren’t paying attention
in a way that grows you both.
doesn’t just happen automatically. We have to practice the things that make for
intimacy- practice honesty, practice openness, practice vulnerability, engage in communication in a context of safety. Obviously,
if you want to be good at something, you have to practice it.
It is curious
though that we live in a world, where people know they have to work out to stay
in shape, they know they have to go see a pro when their golf swing is out of
the groove. But when it comes to developing deeper intimacy, better
communication, these same people are reluctant to routinely get involved in
marriage counseling or in reading books that teach us how to be better
listeners and how to invite our spouses to become more open. We tune up our
cars from time to time, we spruce up our yards a couple times a year, but we
only get involved in counseling when-… there is something seriously wrong. It
is almost as if you have a character flaw if you can’t do this on your own.
In fact, one of
the best gifts you can give your spouse is a relational tune up every so often.
Read something together. You can grow from that.
For others of
us, the best thing we can give our spouse is to get away together- drop the
stress of the job, away from family, away from friends- and give ourselves a
chance to re-create our selves. I had a friend who got away with her spouse for
the first time in several years- all alone- it was just for a few days. She
gets back. I asked her what it was like. She said, “I remembered why we got
married in the first place”. What a great idea. Some of us don’t take enough
time alone and we should. It is about the love.
Brothers and sisters, Paul says “Love is
patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own terms; it is not irritable or resentful; it does
not rejoice when others make mistakes, but pulls for small victories… make love
your aim.” Amen.
[i] Schneerson, Menachem. Toward a Meaningful Life (1995), p. 67.
[ii] Ibid. p. 69.
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